Judge, Yanks on top as baseball returns from All-Star break

CHICAGO (AP) — Aaron Judge and the New York Yankees, Mookie Betts and the Los Angeles Dodgers, Jose Altuve and the Houston Astros — they’re all just looking for more of the same. The Atlanta Braves’ title defense is rolling along, and Julio Rodríguez and the Seattle Mariners are looking to crash the playoff party.

As baseball returns from the All-Star break — all packed up and ready to go after the AL’s 3-2 victory at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday night — the postseason picture is quite crowded, thanks to the addition of a third wild card in each league.

The October equation can change in a hurry, too. Just ask Rodríguez and the Mariners, winners of 14 in a row. Or the contenders looking at the Aug. 2 trade deadline, with Cincinnati Reds ace Luis Castillo, Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras and, yes, Washington Nationals slugger Juan Soto, all believed to be on the market to varying degrees.

Welcome back, indeed.

“We still got a long way to go,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “A lot of baseball to play.”

Roberts’ club is one of three teams with at least a nine-game lead in their respective divisions heading into the second half. Led by Betts and Freddie Freeman, Los Angeles is 10 games up on Manny Machado and the San Diego Padres in the NL West.

“Just a lot of good things happened in the first half for us,” Freeman said.

Altuve and Houston still have a nine-game lead in the AL West, even with the win streak for Seattle. The Astros and Mariners close out their season series with seven more games this month, beginning Friday night in Seattle.

“I thought the Mariners had a good team from the very beginning, and I told everybody that then at the time, they finished extremely strong last year, and you know, you have to beat them,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said. “They are not going to beat themselves.”

The AL East has been the best division in baseball — every team is .500 or better, even the 46-46 Baltimore Orioles — but that hasn’t affected New York very much at all. The Yankees begin the second half with a gaudy 64-28 record and a whopping 13-game lead over Tampa Bay.

While Giancarlo Stanton has delivered his usual power and Clay Holmes has been one of the game’s most dominant relievers, it’s Judge leading the way for the Bronx Bombers. He is batting .284 with 33 homers and 70 RBIs, joining Shohei Ohtani among the frontrunners for AL MVP.

“I think he continues to get better and better as a leader, which has always been, I think, a positive trait of his,” New York manager Aaron Boone said. “But I would just say he’s a more complete, refined, veteran player that is also in the prime of his career.”

Judge and the Yankees are trying to chase down the franchise’s first championship since 2009 and No. 28 overall. But there are all sorts of potential roadblocks — both nearby and further away.

The crosstown Mets are on top of the NL East, looking to hold off the Braves and take the franchise’s first division title since 2015. Each of baseball’s Central divisions had a mediocre first half, but Milwaukee and St. Louis have an array of stars, and Carlos Correa could power Minnesota back into the playoffs after it finished last in the AL Central in 2021.

Even the Chicago White Sox, who underperformed early on, showed some positive signs while taking three of four at the division-leading Twins in the runup to the break.

“We’ve been talking about it for a while. We’re going to turn the corner,” White Sox right-hander Michael Kopech said. “Things are going to start going our way.”

The return of switch-hitting catcher Yasmani Grandal could provide a lift for the White Sox, who are looking for their third consecutive playoff appearance. The injured list might have a more dramatic effect on the pennant races than the trade deadline.

Mets ace Jacob deGrom is coming back after he was sidelined by a stress reaction in his right scapula. Second baseman Ozzie Albies could rejoin Atlanta’s loaded lineup next month after he broke his left foot on June 14. Philadelphia slugger Bryce Harper, San Diego shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and Houston right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. also could return in time to help their teams down the stretch.

DeGrom, a two-time NL Cy Young Award winner, hasn’t pitched all year. He could team with Max Scherzer to give New York a dominant 1-2 punch at the top of its rotation.

“We all want Jake back,” Mets left-hander David Peterson said. “We all want him healthy, that’s the most important thing. We want him to be productive and we want him to be Jake, the Jake that we love.”

___

AP Baseball Writer Jake Seiner, AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham and Dave Campbell, and AP freelance reporter Jeremy Rakes contributed to this report.

___

Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap

___

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.